UNHCR opens camp in western Ethiopia for Blue Nile state refugees
ASSOSA, Ethiopia, October 7 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has opened a camp in western Ethiopia to accommodate some of the thousands of refugees who have been crossing the border to escape conflict in Sudan's Blue Nile state in recent weeks.
A convoy of buses on Wednesday brought a first group of 395 Sudanese refugees from the border crossings at Kurmuk, Bamza and Almahal to Tongo Refugee Camp, which has been under construction for almost two weeks and has a capacity for 3,000 people.
"We have had to work really hard to get the basics of shelter, water and sanitation in place in a very short time," Richard Ewila, head of UNHCR's field office in the town of Assosa, said. "We are happy to open this new camp and receive the refugees," he added.
The refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration hope to eventually move around 400 Sudanese daily from the border to Tongo, where UNHCR, Ethiopia's Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) and its implementing partners are providing protection and assistance.
The first arrivals at Tongo were among some 27,000 civilians who have fled the fighting between Sudan government forces and rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North since early September.
The new camp, in Ethiopia's Benishangul Gumuz state, is located more than 200 kilometres from Kurmuk - the busiest border crossing - and about 400 kms from Bamza. For security reasons, UNHCR and Ethiopia's Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) are keen to avoid the establishment of spontaneous settlement at the border locations.
UNHCR has stepped up efforts to persuade refugees to relocate away from the border areas, where many stay among the local community in the hope of returning to their homes and checking on their property soon. "We left our village without taking most of our belongings," explained Suraya Abdurahman, a 35-year-old mother of seven who was on the convoy to Tongo.
To date, about 5,000 people have agreed to be registered as refugees by UNHCR at the Sherkole Refugee Camp, about 50 kilometres from the border.
But the continuing insecurity, including frequent air strikes on the Sudan side of the border at Kurmuk, has prompted many to start considering relocation.
Before the current Sudanese emergency began, Sherkole was home to some 4,000 Sudanese refugees who elected to stay in Ethiopia after the end of Sudan's civil war in 2005 and South Sudan's declaration of independence this year. But with the latest influx, Sherkole earlier this week reached its 8,000-person capacity.
"Obviously Sherkole won't be sufficient to accommodate more than 8,000, but the increased aerial and ground attacks in Kurmuk and other areas in Blue Nile state were warning enough to move quickly on preparing Tongo for occupation," Ewila explained.
At the beginning of the influx, the new arrivals were mainly women, children and the elderly - generally in good health. Men were staying behind to look after properties. Recently, however, UNHCR staff at the border have seen larger numbers of men arriving, and more conflict injuries.
Refugees are also bringing their livestock and carrying belongings, such as grain mills or furniture, to help them make a living in Ethiopia. As development of the site continues, 80 of the 380 available family sized tents have been pitched. Up to 40,000 litres of water per day is ready for use while additional water sources are being sought.
UNHCR is also purchasing a month's supply of firewood to be distributed by ARRA for cooking and heating. Meanwhile immunization in Kurmuk for 438 children, including 28 Ethiopian locals, was completed at the end of last week. Immunizing of children will continue at Tongo.
"We still have other structures to put up and we will ensure the health and well-being of the refugees, but I am now relieved that, since Sherkole refugee camp has reached its capacity, we now have Tongo ready to accommodate refugees," UNHCR's Ewila said.
By Pumla Rulashe in Assosa, Ethiopia